My last Mystery Monday post was about Josephine Tey - a writer who never really kept to a particular formula for her mystery novels. That "unexpectedness" is a quality I love about her books. (Did I mention how much I love The Daughter of Time? I think I did - but I'll mention it again here.)
However, sometimes a good formula is exactly what you are looking for.
When we travel we often stop at the ubiquitous Cracker Barrel restaurants, because we want to stop somewhere and get a bite to eat where we can expect pretty good food, decent service, and reasonable prices. Family travel can be stressful enough, so having a familiar place to go where it is not likely to encounter unpleasant surprises is a blessing. Well, I guess the mystery novels by Elizabeth Daly are the "Cracker Barrels" of my collection. When you read a book by Daly, you know pretty much what you are getting, which is an excellent mystery with an engaging main character.
First, a little background. Elizabeth Daly was an American woman who did not begin her novel writing career until she was in her sixties. (I'm so impressed with this - it's never too late!) In her early career she was a tutor in French and English at Bryn Mawr College. I think she was 62 when her first mystery novel was published in 1940. She eventually wrote 16 mystery novels centered around her detective, Henry Gamadge.
Gamadge is not actually a detective at all. He is an authority on rare books and manuscripts, although he does have an interest in criminology. I don't think he ever takes a case for pay. Usually he investigates a problem simply in order to help the people involved.
This brings us to the "formula" I spoke of earlier. Daly's books are usually set in New York City, or those spots in New England where the City folk would have a summer place, like Connecticut or Maine. Gamadge is a quiet man who spends his time authenticating manuscripts in his home in the City, until someone comes to him with a problem. Usually, this problem concerns a family secret that the members of the family are anxious to keep secret, but the problem that has arisen threatens to bring shame and/or unwanted publicity or cost the family what is left of their fortune, etc. Sometimes these problems seem to involve elements of the supernatural. Gamadge is engaged to help them solve this problem discreetly. He takes the case and, of course, murder ensues. This pattern is followed, with variations, in almost all of the books. Even in those books where this pattern is not followed exactly, the stories are always about families having to deal with unusual situations.
Now, I wouldn't want to leave the impression that if you've read one Gamadge mystery, you've read them all. Even though the books do follow a basic formula, each of the stories is very intelligently written, the problems are unique, and there is usually a surprising twist just when you think you have it all figured out. I think they are quite fun reading.
I also like Henry Gamadge. I read somewhere that Gamadge has been called the American Lord Peter Wimsey. Well, I wouldn't go that far. Lord Peter he is not. However, what I like about Gamadge is his "goodness" - he is a very kind, decent, rather self-effacing, fellow.
I also enjoy Daly's books because of their - how shall I put this?- non-vulgar quality. I understand that humans are sinful, sin is a fact of human existence, and that mystery novels deal with the darker side of humanity - murder, lust, greed, adultery, etc. However, I do not care to read those books that sort of wallow in the muckiness of human behavior. (This explains why my favorite books were all written in the earlier parts of the last century.) Elizabeth Daly never wallows.
I've read almost all of the Henry Gamadge books, except Deadly Nightshade. I can't find a copy of that for less than $40 and I'm not going to pay that much for a mystery novel, no matter how good it is! All of her other books can be found pretty cheaply at abebooks.com or Amazon. I won't list all of her books here but I will mention a few that I really enjoyed.
The Murders in Volume II
Evidence of Things Seen
Arrow Pointing Nowhere